Inside Peer Review

I just read How Professors Think by Harvard sociologist Michele Lamont. In the book, Lamont goes behind the scenes of peer review by observing the deliberations of several nationally competitive grant panels. All universities talk in vague terms about valuing excellence, but in these concentrated deliberations, academics make plain what constitutes excellent work.

In interviews with 71 panel members–all seasoned professors–she asked what clues they look for in a grant proposal to signal excellence. Five qualities came up in over half the interviews:

  1. Significance (mentioned by 92% of respondents)
  2. Originality (89%)
  3. Clarity (61%)
  4. Methods (58%)
  5. Feasibility (51%)

These priorities indicate that the best proposals nail the big questions first. The applicant should start by asking, “Why does the research matter?” and “What is novel about my approach?” If those questions get answered clearly, then the proposal has won over the reviewers’ sympathy.

Lamont’s ethnography took place among panels evaluating humanities and social science awards, but its lessons hold true for the medical sciences as well.

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